Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
From ‘Rameau’s Nephew’
By Denis Diderot (1713–1784)
BE the weather fair or foul, it is my custom in any case at five o’clock in the afternoon to stroll in the Palais Royal. I am always to be seen alone and meditative, on the bench D’Argenson. I hold converse with myself on politics or love, on taste or philosophy, and yield up my soul entirely to its own frivolity. It may follow the first idea that presents itself, be the idea wise or foolish. In the Allée de Foi one sees our young rakes following upon the heels of some courtesan who passes on with shameless mien, laughing face, animated glance, and a pug nose; but they soon leave her to follow another, teasing them all, joining none of them. My thoughts are my courtesans.  1
  When it is really too cold or rainy, I take refuge in the Café de la Régence and amuse myself by watching the chess-players. Paris is the place of the world and the Café de la Régence the place of Paris where the best chess is played. There one witnesses the most carefully calculated moves; there one hears the most vulgar conversation; for since it is possible to be at once a man of intellect and a great chess-player, like Légal, so also one may be at once a great chess-player and a very silly person, like Foubert or Mayot.  2
  One afternoon I was there, observing much, speaking rarely, and hearing as little as possible, when one of the most singular personages came up to me that ever was produced by this land of ours, where surely God has never caused a dearth of singular characters. He is a combination of high-mindedness and baseness, of sound understanding and folly; in his head the conceptions of honor and dishonor must be strangely tangled, for the good qualities with which nature has endowed him he displays without boastfulness, and the bad qualities without shame. For the rest, he is firmly built, has an extraordinary power of imagination, and possesses an uncommonly strong pair of lungs. Should you ever meet him and succeed in escaping from the charm of his originality, it must be by stopping both ears with your fingers or by precipitate flight. Heavens, what terrible lungs!  3
  And nothing is less like him than he himself. Sometimes he is thin and wasted, like a man in the last stages of consumption; you could count his teeth through his cheeks; you would think he had not tasted food for several days, or had come from La Trappe.  4
  A month later he is fattened and filled out as if he had never left the banquets of the rich or had been fed among the Bernardines. To-day, with soiled linen, torn trousers, clad in rags, and almost barefoot, he passes with bowed head, avoids those whom he meets, till one is tempted to call him and bestow upon him an alms. To-morrow, powdered, well groomed, well dressed, and well shod, he carries his head high, lets himself be seen, and you would take him almost for a respectable man.  5
  So he lives from day to day, sad or merry, according to the circumstances. His first care, when he rises in the morning, is to take thought where he is to dine. After dinner he bethinks himself of some opportunity to procure supper, and with the night come new cares. Sometimes he goes on foot to his little attic, which is his home if the landlady, impatient at long arrears of rent, has not taken the key away from him. Sometimes he goes to one of the taverns in the suburbs, and there, between a bit of bread and a mug of beer, awaits the day. If he lacks the six sous necessary to procure him quarters for the night, which is occasionally the case, he applies to some cabman among his friends or to the coachman of some great lord, and a place on the straw beside the horses is vouchsafed him. In the morning he carries a part of his mattress in his hair. If the season is mild, he spends the whole night strolling back and forth on the Cours or in the Champs Élysées. With the day he appears again in the city, dressed yesterday for to-day and to-day often for the rest of the week.  6
  For such originals I cannot feel much esteem, but there are others who make close acquaintances and even friends of them. Once in the year perhaps they are able to put their spell upon me, when I meet them, because their character is in such strong contrast to that of every-day humanity, and they break the oppressive monotony which our education, our social conventions, our traditional proprieties have produced. When such a man enters a company, he acts like a cake of yeast that raises the whole, and restores to each a part of his natural individuality. He shakes them up, brings things into motion, elicits praise or censure, drives truth into the open, makes upright men recognizable, unmasks the rogues, and there the wise man sits and listens and is enabled to distinguish one class from another.  7
  This particular specimen I had long known; he frequented a house into which his talents had secured him the entrée. These people had an only daughter. He swore to the parents that he would marry their daughter. They only shrugged their shoulders, laughed in his face, and assured him that he was a fool. But I saw the day come when the thing was accomplished. He asked me for some money, which I gave him. He had, I know not how, squirmed his way into a few houses, where a couvert stood always ready for him, but it had been stipulated that he should never speak without the consent of his hosts. So there he sat and ate, filled the while with malice; it was fun to see him under this restraint. The moment he ventured to break the treaty and open his mouth, at the very first word the guests all shouted “O Rameau!” Then his eyes flashed wrathfully, and he fell upon his food again with renewed energy.  8
  You were curious to know the man’s name; there it is. He is the nephew of the famous composer who has saved us from the church music of Lulli which we have been chanting for a hundred years,… and who, having buried the Florentine, will himself be buried by Italian virtuosi; he dimly feels this, and so has become morose and irritable, for no one can be in a worse humor—not even a beautiful woman who in the morning finds a pimple on her nose—than an author who sees himself threatened with the fate of outliving his reputation, as Marivaux and Crébillon fils prove.  9
  Rameau’s nephew came up to me. “Ah, my philosopher, do I meet you once again? What are you doing here among the good-for-nothings? Are you wasting your time pushing bits of wood about?”  10
  I—No; but when I have nothing better to do, I take a passing pleasure in watching those who push them about with skill.  11
  He—A rare pleasure, surely. Excepting Légal and Philidor, there is no one here that understands it….  12
  I—You are hard to please. I see that only the best finds favor with you.  13
  He—Yes, in chess, checkers, poetry, oratory, music, and such other trumpery. Of what possible use is mediocrity in these things?  14
  I—I am almost ready to agree with you….  15
  He—You have always shown some interest in me, because I’m a poor devil whom you really despise, but who after all amuses you.  16
  I—That is true.  17
  He—Then let me tell you. (Before beginning, he drew a deep sigh, covered his forehead with both hands, then with calm countenance continued:—) You know I am ignorant, foolish, silly, shameless, rascally, gluttonous.  18
  I—What a panegyric!  19
  He—It is entirely true. Not a word to be abated; no contradiction, I pray you. No one knows me better than I know myself, and I don’t tell all.  20
  I—Rather than anger you, I will assent.  21
  He—Now, just think, I lived with people who valued me precisely because all these qualities were mine in a high degree.  22
  I—That is most remarkable. I have hitherto believed that people concealed these qualities even from themselves, or excused them, but always despised them in others.  23
  He—Conceal them? Is that possible? You may be sure that when Palissot is alone and contemplates himself, he tells quite a different story. You may be sure that he and his companion make open confession to each other that they are a pair of arrant rogues. Despise these qualities in others? My people were much more reasonable, and I fared excellently well among them. I was cock of the walk. When absent, I was instantly missed. I was pampered. I was their little Rameau, their good Rameau, the shameless, ignorant, lazy Rameau, the fool, the clown, the gourmand. Each of these epithets was to me a smile, a caress, a slap on the back, a box on the ears, a kick, a dainty morsel thrown upon my plate at dinner, a liberty permitted me after dinner as if it were of no account; for I am of no account. People make of me and do before me and with me whatever they please, and I never give it a thought….  24
  I—You have been giving lessons, I understand, in accompaniment and composition?  25
  He—Yes.  26
  I—And you knew absolutely nothing about it?  27
  He—No, by Heaven; and for that very reason I was a much better teacher than those who imagine they know something about it. At all events, I didn’t spoil the taste nor ruin the hands of my young pupils. If when they left me they went to a competent master, they had nothing to unlearn, for they had learned nothing, and that was just so much time and money saved.  28
  I—But how did you do it?  29
  He—The way they all do it. I came, threw myself into a chair:—“How bad the weather is! How tired the pavement makes one!” Then some scraps of town gossip:… “At the last Amateur Concert there was an Italian woman who sang like an angel…. Poor Dumênil doesn’t know what to say or do,” etc., etc…. “Come, mademoiselle, where is your music-book?” And as mademoiselle displays no great haste, searches every nook and corner for the book, which she has mislaid, and finally calls the maid to help her, I continue:—“Little Clairon is an enigma. There is talk of a perfectly absurd marriage of—what is her name?”—“Nonsense, Rameau, it isn’t possible.”—“They say the affair is all settled.”… “There is a rumor that Voltaire is dead,”—“All the better.”—“Why all the better?”—“Then he is sure to treat us to some droll skit. That’s a way he has, a fortnight before his death.” What more should I say? I told a few scandals about the families in the houses where I am received, for we are all great scandal-mongers. In short, I played the fool; they listened and laughed, and exclaimed, “He is really too droll, isn’t he?” Meanwhile the music-book had been found under a chair, where a little dog or a little cat had worried it, chewed it, and torn it. Then the pretty child sat down at the piano and began to make a frightful noise upon it. I went up to her, secretly making a sign of approbation to her mother. “Well, now, that isn’t so bad,” said the mother; “one needs only to make up one’s mind to a thing; but the trouble is, one will not make up one’s mind; one would rather kill time by chattering, trifling, running about, and God knows what. Scarcely do you turn your back but the book is closed, and not until you are at her side again is it opened. Besides, I have never heard you reprimand her.” In the mean time, since something had to be done, I took her hands and placed them differently. I pretended to lose my patience; I shouted,—“Sol, sol, sol, mademoiselle, it’s a sol.” The mother: “Mademoiselle, have you no ears? I’m not at the piano, I’m not looking at your notes, but my own feeling tells me that it ought to be a sol. You give the gentleman infinite trouble. You remember nothing, and make no progress.” To break the force of this reproof a little, I tossed my head and said: “Pardon me, madame, pardon me. It would be better if mademoiselle would only practice a little, but after all it is not so bad.”—“In your place I would keep her a whole year at one piece.”—“Rest assured, I shall not let her off until she has mastered every difficulty; and that will not take so long, perhaps, as mademoiselle thinks.”—“Monsieur Rameau, you flatter her; you are too good.” And that is the only thing they would remember of the whole lesson, and would upon occasion repeat to me. So the lesson came to an end. My pupil handed me the fee, with a graceful gesture and a courtesy which her dancing-master had taught her. I put the money into my pocket, and the mother said, “That’s very nice, mademoiselle. If Favillier were here, he would praise you.” For appearance’s sake I chattered for a minute or two more; then I vanished; and that is what they called in those days a lesson in accompaniment.  30
  I—And is the case different now?  31
  He—Heavens! I should think so. I come in, I am serious, throw my muff aside, open the piano, try the keys, show signs of great impatience, and if I am kept a moment waiting I shout as if my purse had been stolen. In an hour I must be there or there; in two hours with the Duchess So-and-so; at noon I must go to the fair Marquise; and then there is to be a concert at Baron de Bagge’s, Rue Neuve des Petits Champs.  32
  I—And meanwhile no one expects you at all.  33
  He—Certainly not…. And precisely because I can further my fortune through vices which come natural to me, which I acquired without labor and practice without effort, which are in harmony with the customs of my countrymen, which are quite to the taste of my patrons, and better adapted to their special needs than inconvenient virtues would be, which from morning to night would be standing accusations against them, it would be strange indeed if I should torture myself like one of the damned to twist and turn and make of myself something which I am not, and hide myself beneath a character foreign to me, and assume the most estimable qualities, whose worth I will not dispute, but which I could acquire and live up to only by great exertions, and which after all would lead to nothing,—perhaps to worse than nothing. Moreover, ought a beggar like me, who lives upon the wealthy, constantly to hold up to his patrons a mirror of good conduct? People praise virtue but hate it; they fly from it, let it freeze; and in this world a man has to keep his feet warm. Besides, I should always be in the sourest humor: for why is it that the pious and the devotional are so hard, so repellent, so unsociable? It is because they have imposed upon themselves a task contrary to their nature. They suffer, and when a man suffers he makes others suffer. Now, that is no affair of mine or of my patrons’. I must be in good spirits, easy, affable, full of sallies, drollery, and folly. Virtue demands reverence, and reverence is inconvenient; virtue challenges admiration, and admiration is not entertaining. I have to do with people whose time hangs heavy on their hands; they want to laugh. Now consider the folly: the ludicrous makes people laugh, and I therefore must be a fool; I must be amusing, and if nature had not made me so, then by hook or by crook I should have made myself seem so. Fortunately I have no need to play the hypocrite. There are hypocrites enough of all colors without me, and not counting those who deceive themselves…. Should it ever occur to friend Rameau to play Cato, to despise fortune, women, good living, idleness, what would he be? A hypocrite. Let Rameau remain what he is, a happy robber among wealthy robbers, and a man without either real or boasted virtue. In short, your idea of happiness, the happiness of a few enthusiastic dreamers like you, has no charm for me….  34
  I—He earns his bread dearly, who in order to live must assail virtue and knowledge.  35
  He—I have already told you that we are of no consequence. We slander all men and grieve none.  36
[The dialogue reverts to music.]

  I—Every imitation has its original in nature. What is the musician’s model when he breaks into song?
  He—Why do you not grasp the subject higher up? What is song?  38
  I—That, I confess, is a question beyond my powers. That’s the way with us all. The memory is stored with words only, which we think we understand because we often use them and even apply them correctly, but in the mind we have only indefinite conceptions. When I use the word “song,” I have no more definite idea of it than you and the majority of your kind have when you say reputation, disgrace, honor, vice, virtue, shame, propriety, mortification, ridicule.  39
  He—Song is an imitation in tones, produced either by the voice or by instruments, of a scale invented by art, or if you will, established by nature; an imitation of physical sounds or passionate utterances; and you see, with proper alterations this definition could be made to fit painting, oratory, sculpture, and poetry. Now to come to your question, What is the model of the musician or of song? It is the declamation, when the model is alive or sensate; it is the tone, when the model is insensate. The declamation must be regarded as a line, and the music as another line which twines about it. The stronger and the more genuine is this declamation, this model of song, the more numerous the points at which the accompanying music intersects it, the more beautiful will it be. And this our younger composers have clearly perceived. When one hears “Je suis un pauvre diable,” one feels that it is a miser’s complaint. If he didn’t sing, he would address the earth in the very same tones when he intrusts to its keeping his gold: “O terre, reçois mon trésor.”… In such works with the greatest variety of characters, there is a convincing truth of declamation that is unsurpassed. I tell you, go, go, and hear the aria where the young man who feels that he is dying, cries out, “Mon cœur s’en va.” Listen to the air, listen to the accompaniment, and then tell me what difference there is between the true tones of a dying man and the handling of this music. You will see that the line of the melody exactly coincides with the line of declamation. I say nothing of the time, which is one of the conditions of song; I confine myself to the expression, and there is nothing truer than the statement which I have somewhere read, “Musices seminarium accentus,”—the accent is the seed-plot of the melody. And for that reason, consider how difficult and important a matter it is to be able to write a good recitative. There is no beautiful aria out of which a beautiful recitative could not be made; no beautiful recitative out of which a clever man could not produce a beautiful aria. I will not assert that one who recites well will also be able to sing well, but I should be much surprised if a good singer could not recite well. And you may believe all that I tell you now, for it is true.  40
  (And then he walked up and down and began to hum a few arias from the “Île des Fous,” etc., exclaiming from time to time, with upturned eyes and hands upraised:—) “Isn’t that beautiful, great heavens! isn’t that beautiful? Is it possible to have a pair of ears on one’s head and question its beauty?” Then as his enthusiasm rose he sang quite softly, then more loudly as he became more impassioned, then with gestures, grimaces, contortions of body. “Well,” said I, “he is losing his mind, and I may expect a new scene.” And in fact, all at once he burst out singing…. He passed from one aria to another, fully thirty of them,—Italian, French, tragic, comic, of every sort. Now with a deep bass he descended into hell; then, contracting his throat, he split the upper air with a falsetto, and in gait, mien, and action he imitated the different singers, by turns raving, commanding, mollified, scoffing. There was a little girl that wept, and he hit off all her pretty little ways. Then he was a priest, a king, a tyrant; he threatened, commanded, stormed; then he was a slave and submissive. He despaired, he grew tender, he lamented, he laughed, always in the tone, the time, the sense of the words, of the character, of the situation.  41
  All the chess-players had left their boards and were gathered around him; the windows of the café were crowded with passers-by, attracted by the noise. There was laughter enough to bring down the ceiling. He noticed nothing, but went on in such a rapt state of mind, in an enthusiasm so close to madness, that I was uncertain whether he would recover, or if he would be thrown into a cab and taken straight to the mad-house; the while he sang the Lamentations of Jomelli.  42
  With precision, fidelity, and incredible warmth, he rendered one of the finest passages, the superb obligato recitative in which the prophet paints the destruction of Jerusalem; he wept himself, and the eyes of the listeners were moist. More could not be desired in delicacy of vocalization, nor in the expression of overwhelming grief. He dwelt especially on those parts in which the great composer has shown his greatness most clearly. When he was not singing, he took the part of the instruments; these he quickly dropped again, to return to the vocal part, weaving one into the other so perfectly that the connection, the unity of the whole, was preserved. He took possession of our souls and held them in the strangest suspense I have ever experienced. Did I admire him? Yes, I admired him. Was I moved and melted? I was moved and melted, and yet something of the ludicrous mingled itself with these feelings and modified their nature.  43
  But you would have burst out laughing at the way he imitated the different instruments. With a rough muffled tone and puffed-out cheeks he represented horns and bassoon; for the oboe he assumed a rasping nasal tone; with incredible rapidity he made his voice run over the string instruments, whose tones he endeavored to reproduce with the greatest accuracy; the flute passages he whistled; he rumbled out the sounds of the German flute; he shouted and sang with the gestures of a madman, and so alone and unaided he impersonated the entire ballet corps, the singers, the whole orchestra,—in short, a complete performance,—dividing himself into twenty different characters, running, stopping, with the mien of one entranced, with glittering eyes and foaming mouth…. He was quite beside himself. Exhausted by his exertions, like a man awakening from a deep sleep or emerging from a long period of abstraction, he remained motionless, stupefied, astonished. He looked about him in bewilderment, like one trying to recognize the place in which he finds himself. He awaited the return of his strength, of his consciousness; he dried his face mechanically. Like one who upon awaking finds his bed surrounded by groups of people, in complete oblivion and profound unconsciousness of what he had been doing, he cried, “Well, gentlemen, what’s the matter? What are you laughing at? What are you wondering about? What’s the matter?”  44
  I—My dear Rameau, let us talk again of music. Tell me how it comes that with the facility you display for appreciating the finest passages of the great masters, for retaining them in your memory, and for rendering them to the delight of others with all the enthusiasm with which the music inspires you,—how comes it that you have produced nothing of value yourself?  45
  (Instead of answering me, he tossed his head, and raising his finger towards heaven, cried:—)  46
  The stars, the stars! When nature made Leo, Vinci, Pergolese, Duni, she wore a smile; her face was solemn and commanding when she created my dear uncle Rameau, who for ten years has been called the great Rameau, and who will soon be named no more. But when she scraped his nephew together, she made a face and a face and a face.—(And as he spoke he made grimaces, one of contempt, one of irony, one of scorn. He went through the motions of kneading dough, and smiled at the ludicrous forms he gave it. Then he threw the strange pagoda from him.) So she made me and threw me down among other pagodas, some with portly well-filled paunches, short necks, protruding goggle eyes, and an apoplectic appearance; others with lank and crooked necks and emaciated forms, with animated eyes and hawks’ noses. These all felt like laughing themselves to death when they saw me, and when I saw them I set my arms akimbo and felt like laughing myself to death, for fools and clowns take pleasure in one another; seek one another out, attract one another. Had I not found upon my arrival in this world the proverb ready-made, that the money of fools is the inheritance of the clever, the world would have owed it to me. I felt that nature had put my inheritance into the purse of the pagodas, and I tried in a thousand ways to recover it.  47
  I—I know these ways. You have told me of them. I have admired them. But with so many capabilities, why do you not try to accomplish something great?  48
  He—That is exactly what a man of the world said to the Abbé Le Blanc. The abbé replied:—“The Marquise de Pompadour takes me in hand and brings me to the door of the Academy; then she withdraws her hand; I fall and break both legs.”—“You ought to pull yourself together,” rejoined the man of the world, “and break the door in with your head.”—“I have just tried that,” answered the abbé, “and do you know what I got for it? A bump on the head.”… (Then he drank a swallow from what remained in the bottle and turned to his neighbor.) Sir, I beg you for a pinch of snuff. That’s a fine snuff-box you have there. You are a musician? No! All the better for you. They are a lot of poor deplorable wretches. Fate made me one of them, me! Meanwhile at Montmartre there is a mill, and in the mill there is perhaps a miller or a miller’s lad, who will never hear anything but the roaring of the mill, and who might have composed the most beautiful of songs. Rameau, get you to the mill, to the mill; it’s there you belong…. But it is half-past five. I hear the vesper bell which summons me too. Farewell. It’s true, is it not, philosopher, I am always the same Rameau?  49
  I—Yes, indeed. Unfortunately.  50
  He—Let me enjoy my misfortune forty years longer. He laughs best who laughs last.  51

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